By Nandeeta Bala ’22
STEPP (Student Teacher Engaged Pedagogical Partnership) stemmed from Vassar College’s Engaged Pluralism Initiative (EPI) Inclusive Pedagogies Working Group and was piloted during the Spring 2020 semester. It was based on the research conducted by Alison Cook-Sather and modeled off of Bryn Mawr College’s and Haverford College’s pedagogical partnership program SaLT. The STEPP pilot consisted of four student partners, four faculty partners (one being the faculty coordinator of STEPP), a student partner meeting facilitator, and a student coordinator. Student partners received 0.5 credits of independent research in a discipline of the faculty partner.
In the program, a student partner, who was not enrolled in the faculty partner’s class, attended a class weekly to observe their faculty partner’s teaching practices. During a weekly meeting with the faculty partner, the student partners shared observations and reflections from class and both partners worked together to adapt classroom pedagogical practices. Student partners attended weekly meetings with the STEPP facilitator to share concerns and learn from one another’s experiences.
Given the unexpected disruption of the semester and a rapid transition to remote learning due to COVID-19, pedagogical partnership work was significantly affected.
Future work entails brainstorming and implementing a plan for the uncertain Fall 2020 semester and increasing intercollegiate communication to expand the support network among student partners that was initiated during the Spring 2020 semester.
Information in this summary is based on Nandeeta, the student coordinator’s, own experiences, observations, emails, and interviews.
Developing and Starting STEPP
When discussing ideas that the EPI Inclusive Pedagogies Group could work on, the institution of a Learning, Teaching, and Research Center at Vassar proved fundamental. While researching peer liberal arts institutions, it was found that Amherst College recently developed a Learning and Teaching Center in response to their student protests of college policies. The director of the center connected the working group to Alison Cook-Sather, who had developed pedagogical partnerships programs at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. Based on multiple recommendations, working group members visited Bryn Mawr and Haverford. Inspired by their rich conversations with SaLT student partners, they decided to implement a pilot of SaLT at Vassar.
All participants were from the EPI Inclusive Pedagogies Working Group, except for two, who were recommended by faculty members in the working group. Faculty and students were paired only based on their schedule.
STEPP On-Campus and During Remote Learning
All participants in STEPP, excluding a student partner, were able to attend the orientation on January 31, 2020 that was facilitated by Alison. Partners commenced pedagogical work soon after and the first student partner meeting was held two weeks later.
Student partner meetings were facilitated with guidelines from a packet provided by Alison during the orientation. Karen emailed the agenda to Nandeeta and to student partners prior to each student partner meeting, and invited student partners to email or share specific topics on their minds.
At the first student partners meeting, student partners discussed how their roles were introduced to the class, where they were seated in the class, how they took notes (typing vs. writing), and goals of the partnership, as discussed by both partners during their respective student-faculty partner conversations. These topics were discussed taking into account the department, size, and vibe of the classroom and the comfort of both partners. Seating arrangements of the student partners, while encouraging different perspectives of the classroom, varied based on the classroom activity; for instance, during small group discussions, a student partner might choose between visiting different groups or remaining with one group for the duration of an activity.
While typing up notes shared during the orientation, Nandeeta analyzed the list of words that were repeated to express participants’ feelings about the partnership work, which she used to facilitate a conversation during the student partner meetings about naming the program. Fortunately, Kayla had already formulated the acronym STEPP, unanimously accepted by all participants as an apt description and acronym for the program.
During the student partner meetings, the demographics of the classroom and corresponding participation trends were discussed extensively. Most student partners observed significant patterns to participation in regards to identities such as gender, race, and immigration status. Differing identities or perspectives between the student and faculty partner shed light and led to the emphasis of certain demographic trends during the student-faculty meetings. While leading to difficult conversations that were stressful for student partners, these discussions encouraged professors to consider subtle effects of their pedagogical practices. Student partners shared that the identities of their professors too encouraged students with specific identities to enroll or to participate actively in the classes, especially given that some faculty partners were known to affirm students with marginalized identities and, through their countercultural pedagogical emphasis on collaboration and discussion among students, to combat stereotypes that are propagated in similar subject-area classrooms. The identity of the student partner within the classroom too proved significant for the student partners and affected interactions with other students in the classroom and student-faculty conversations.
Another focus of student partner meetings was the discussion of an appropriate format for midterm evaluations. These conversations centered on the comfort of student and faculty partners with a particular format (e.g. discussion with students in the class) and what would be most constructive for students in the class (e.g. students may not feel comfortable sharing with student partners if they have not interacted previously). Accordingly, two student partners facilitated discussions while the other two partners planned to conduct online feedback forms.
Due to the unanticipated transition to remote learning after Spring Break due to COVID-19, some student partners were unable to conduct their midterm evaluations. Faculty partners, many with children, struggled to rapidly adapt classes to an online setting and chose between asynchronous and synchronous class schedules based on the availability and ability of them and their students. Student and faculty partners checked-in early in the transition, emotionally and logistically supporting one another. Faculty partners initially aimed to have communication with the student partner focus on what was and was not working with their online classes.
During remote learning, it became increasingly difficult for student partners to attend student partner meetings as more pressing priorities reigned. To discuss reactions to distance learning and how they have been envisioning their role in STEPP, few student partners were able to participate in an intercollegiate student partners meeting. Some students partners were unable to notably contribute to their pedagogical partnerships and hence did not have much to discuss during the student partner meetings.
Nandeeta brainstormed possible interview questions, which Henry Molina, EPI Qualitative Research Associate, and Alison reviewed. Interviews were conducted after the completion of the Spring 2020 semester.
Student partners shared an appreciation for their faculty partners’ diligent attitude in working towards best supporting their students. Many student partners were surprised to find how amazing their faculty partners were! They found building the partnership relationship one of the most exciting and inspiring components of partnership work. An uncertainty concerning providing negative feedback to faculty partners and feeling out-of place or awkward in class proved challenging to student partners. Some students also felt that a lack of knowledge on the subject area was a challenge, though they noted the advantages of such an approach.
While some participants were unsure whether knowledge of the subject material (or its lack of) could benefit student partners’ insights, other participants contended that student partners’ lack of knowledge on the subject material encouraged the focus to remain on pedagogical insights and aided in achieving the partnership goals.
Assumptions student partners brought to the classroom included stereotypes about departments and classrooms. They encouraged future student partners to consider how STEPP is about humanizing students and to not fear professors. Student partners shared that they would have liked to stay more active and have played a larger role in partnership work during remote learning, a disappointing and difficult transition, which disrupted their and their faculty partners’ lives.
From on-campus to remote learning, student partners’ roles changed from focusing on how class goals (e.g. increased collaboration) could be achieved to ensure that they and students in their faculty partner’s class get through the semester. Student-faculty meetings were eliminated or drastically reduced during remote learning due to disrupted schedules. Student partners shared that for remote learning in the future, informal Zoom meetings that encourage students to bring questions regarding material and course format and enable the student partner to participate could be very useful, especially in facilitating a sense of belonging for all students. Other pedagogical strategies learned from the Spring 2020 semester online include a need to focus only on necessary assignments, a recognition of check-ins as a more valuable tool for connection, and music as an effective medium in the classroom.
Student partners found the observation-reflection format of notes very valuable during partnership work on-campus. It encouraged an objective perspective of teaching practices and maintained a focus on pedagogical goals. Student partners found themselves tweaking the format to suit the partnership work’s needs, especially after noting trends in pedagogical practices. Yet, all the student partners did not find it useful or did not use it during remote learning. As a student partner described, it was mainly useful to analyze classroom dynamics, which is harder to observe, and in their words: “less significant online.”
The facilitator aimed the focus of student partner meetings to be “for students and about students.” Some student partners loved the student partner meetings; they enjoyed the check-ins and suggested no changes for the future. Other student partners would appreciate more of an emphasis on the student partners’ discussion of their own experiences in partnership work and on supporting one another by sharing advice, as experienced during the orientation. These deeper discussions could be integrated into student partner meetings by restructuring the meetings to spend lesser time on check-ins. Student partners repeatedly shared that STEPP is isolating and that approaches for the future, in addition to restructured student partner meetings, could include intercollegiate meetings or connections; they also expressed interest in pairing participating student partners with one another at Vassar to provide additional support for their partnership work.
As a result of STEPP, student partners shared that they now assume professor’s best intent in their own classes, appreciate STEPP faculty partners as “model professors,” and value pedagogical goals such as structuring a classroom around students, collaboration, and flexible/accommodating qualities in professors.
Faculty partners primarily found the switch to online classes and pursuing partnership work amidst challenges posed by COVID-19 very challenging. One participant felt that it left STEPP in its “infancy stage of development.”
Some faculty also noted a lack of tools to resolve the issues identified in their classes and of guides for class activities. Many expressed that the most exciting or inspiring aspect of partnership work was to receive honest feedback from a student (without the normalized power dynamic) that pushed them to reflect on their pedagogical practices. One faculty partner explained that “teaching tends to be a very solitary activity with little regular feedback . . . so getting to work with someone regularly to debrief how the class is going is really helpful.” As another partner shared, “You don’t get a chance for someone to see you teach and get them to talk about it in a vulnerable way.”
Faculty partners were surprised to find how passionate their student partner was, how they enjoyed their student-faculty meetings, and how, as a product of partnership work, the class managed to do so well despite the pandemic and its effects. While many faculty partners stated that they approached pedagogical partnership work with an open mind and had no expectations of their partners, others expected their partnership work to go really well in an already established student-faculty relationship.
Pedagogical insights that faculty gained include approaching teaching more from a lens of engagement and inclusion and being explicit with their class about uncertainties, goals, and expectations. If faculty had an opportunity to do something in their teaching or in partnership work during the Spring 2020 semester differently, while some would not change anything, others would include more activities in and experiment with their class, have more office hours due to the lack of consistent time with students, and try a flipped classroom model. As recommended programmatic structures or approaches for the future, they shared that allowing faculty to work with student partners they had a good working relationship with to encourage faculty participation in STEPP, aggregating relevant literature in a faculty partner’s discipline and consolidating non-discipline specific writing to provide resources for change or experimentation in class activities to empower faculty and students to take action, and having non-mandatory faculty partner meetings (around once a month to avoid burdening faculty partners’ busy schedules) could be valuable. Another participant shared that, as STEPP stemmed from a focus on inclusion, potential participants from diverse backgrounds may be recruited.
They encouraged future faculty partners to be open-minded, approach partnership work with the idea of receiving and incorporating feedback, support student partners to take an open and active role to offer their honest opinions, note that STEPP is a process not a destination, realize that relationships depend on personalities, and acknowledge that while progress may not be immediate, it is cumulative and offers an “intentional practice of self-reflection.” The facilitator recommended that future facilitators listen to student partners and strive to draw the best out of them.
A student partner and a faculty partner shared that the student coordinator role was very valuable in the program and would love to have it continue in the future. Another participant said the student coordinator could have a more active role in the program, which could extend to facilitating student partner meetings.
All participants shared that they would recommend the program to other students, administrators, or faculty. If they have an opportunity, all student partners would love to participate in STEPP in the future. Some faculty partners would love to participate again, but others are unsure or would not, given the uncertainty of the Fall 2020 semester, previous difficulty in maintaining pedagogical partnerships online, and health issues that might hinder their participation in an online setting.
Following this documentation of the pilot, Nandeeta, Jonathon, and Jodi Schwarz, in a collaboration between EPI and Grand Challenges, will brainstorm a plan for the uncertain Fall 2020 semester, acknowledging possibilities that classes may be online/remote and preparing for hybrid models. In addition, Candice Lowe Swift offered Nandeeta, Milo, Jens, and Ananya opportunities to work as student partners to a cohort of faculty involved in the Summer Immersions Program. Nandeeta and Alison plan to continue and to expand the support network among student partners that was initiated during the Spring 2020 semester through the “Pairing Student Partners: An Intercollegiate Collaboration” program, where student partners from one college/university will be matched with another partner from another college/university.